More than four decades after whale hunters captured Lolita off Puget Sound and sold her to the Miami Seaquarium, activists fighting to free the killer whale say she may have a shot at going home.
Later this month, the National Oceanic and and Atmospheric Administration is scheduled to decide whether to include the 20-foot orca in a family of wild killer whales declared endangered in 2005. With over 17,000 public comments mostly in support, Lolita will likely make the list.
“Lolita has a moment right now,” said Ocean Drive founder and former publisher Jerry Powers, who first tried to buy the whale in 1995. “We have a shot at getting her out and it has to be really, really fast.”
But federal regulators and attorneys say the law is not so clear. Unlike wild endangered species that require a permit typically only granted for research or rebuilding populations, Lolita’s listing includes a clause that exempts captive animals.
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And Seaquarium officials, who have successfully fended off efforts to free the aging killer whale despite a global campaign — a former Washington governor even granted her citizenship — say she is staying put.
“She is not for sale and she is not being released,” said Robert Rose, the attraction’s curator of animals.
That isn’t stopping activists from trying. On Friday, Powers and activists from around the country plan to unveil an ambitious retirement plan to buy Lolita and move her to a protected cove near the San Juan Islands where her family still roams. An anonymous donor, Powers said, has provided a sea pen where Lolita could live until she could learn to forage on her own. A station would also be built to monitor her care.
The activists plan to hold a rally outside the Key Biscayne attraction on Saturday.
Lolita is one of just 22 captive orcas in the United States and is believed to be the oldest, said Howard Garrett of the Orca Network. Whalers captured her in 1970 after using sonic blasts to round her up along with six other calves that were shipped to marine attractions around the world. Only Lolita remains alive, he said.
Garrett and Powers hope to persuade the park’s new owners, California-based Palace, that public opinion no longer supports captive killer whales.
“They know if they don’t release her, they’re going to wake up one morning and she’s going to be dead in her tank,” Powers said. “It’s a public company and we know happened to SeaWorld [after an orca killed a trainer at the Orlando attraction] and their stock.”
But Rose, the curator, pointed out that Lolita is considered a “non-releasable” candidate who would not survive in the wild. He called their plan an untested experiment.
“We’ve been there, done that. And Keiko is that animal. Most readers will know him as Free Willy,” he said.
Keiko was captured off Iceland in 1979, sold to an aquarium and eventually became the star of a movie and campaign to free him. About three years after he was returned home and freed, he died, unable to bond with surrounding killer whales.
But Garrett said Keiko was not reunited with his family, a key to Lolita’s future. Acoustic tests have positively identified her family’s pod, which still swims in waters off Puget Sound. Killer whales form distinct pods, generations old, that can be identified by their calls, he said.
“They overlap in habitat but not their communications,” he said.
Nearly 80 members of Lolita’s pod still inhabit the area for six months of the year.
Since the Seaquarium’s only other orca died in 1980, Lolita has lived alone, with only dolphins for companions.
Jared Goodman, an attorney for PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — believes her living conditions without another killer whale for companionship and a too-small tank violate the Endangered Species Act and U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. After the Agriculture Department grandfathered the tank in, PETA sued in 2012. A judge dismissed the case, but the organization is appealing.